US Diplomats and Human Rights 2


The house magazine for US diplomats, Foreign Service, has published its September 2007 issue on “Human Rights Promotion in the Post-9/11 Era”. It contains a number of excellent essays, and also one by me on the lessons of my time in Uzbekistan, which I reproduce here:

The Folly of a Short-Term Approach

By Craig Murray

Ambassador Craig Murray resigned from the British Diplomatic Service in February 2005. He is now rector of the University of Dundee and an honorary research fellow at the University of Lancaster School of Law. His memoir of his time in Uzbekistan, Murder in Samarkand, is available from Amazon.co.uk. Paramount and Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B are producing a movie based on that memoir, with filming scheduled to begin in February 2008 under British director Michael Winterbottom.

I am very pleased to be offered the chance to pass on to you some thoughts on the conflict between human rights and the ‘War on Terror,’ drawn largely from my recent service as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Uzbekistan. As a result of that experience, I should acknowledge, I was recently vetoed as a participant in a U.S.-sponsored seminar on that topic by a very senior State Department official, on the grounds that I was ‘viciously anti-American.’

That is not true, of course. Yes, I am a person who holds his beliefs very dear and who believes strongly in individual liberty in all spheres. Thus, I am a passionate supporter not just of democracy and human rights, but also of capitalism and free markets.

So how could someone with that belief set come to be perceived as anti-American? The answer is that I do not believe that recent U.S. foreign policy has promoted those goals at all, but rather has been doing something very different.

Walter Carrington Avenue

To illustrate what I mean, let me offer an example of diplomacy at its best. One of my inspirations was Walter Carrington, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 1993 to 1997. Amb. Carrington never accepted the brutal dictatorship of the Sani Abacha regime (1993-1998), and constantly went beyond normal diplomatic behavior in assisting and encouraging human rights groups, and in making outspoken speeches on human rights and democracy.

Carrington’s approach was a direct challenge to the British Embassy in Nigeria, which pursued a much more traditional line of polite interaction with the president and his cohorts. This appeasement did us no good, as Abacha repeatedly moved against our interests; for example, he banned British Airways from flying into Nigeria. Nonetheless, my diplomatic colleagues looked down their long noses at Carrington with disdain, for raising unpleasant subjects like torture and execution at cocktail parties. (I regret to say that some of the career subordinates in the U.S. embassy did the same.)

The Abacha dictatorship hated Carrington so much that the Nigerian armed forces even stormed the ambassador’s farewell reception and arrested some Nigerian participants, a breach which was rightly condemned by the U.S. Congress. But a grateful Nigerian people did not forget his efforts on their behalf, and soon after Abacha’s downfall, the street on which the U.S. and British consulates in Lagos were situated was renamed by the local authorities as Walter Carrington Avenue. I believe it is still called that.

Carrington’s example taught me a great lesson in diplomacy: that the relationship of an embassy should be with the people of a country, not just with their authorities. Regimes which are hated by their people will never survive indefinitely, though they may endure a very long time. A fundamental role of an embassy in these situations should be to do everything in its power to hasten the dawn of freedom.

A Perfect Failure

Uzbekistan is undoubtedly one of the most vicious dictatorships on Earth. Freedom House ranks it as one of just five countries scoring a perfect 7 ‘ complete lack of freedom ‘ on both political rights and civil liberties. The Heritage Foundation’s view of economic freedoms there is similarly critical. In short, Uzbekistan does not follow the Southeast Asian model of an authoritarian government overseeing a free economy and rapid economic development. It is more akin to North Korea than to Singapore. Soviet institutions have been strengthened and corruption even increased. Only the iconography switched, from communism to nationalism.

Yet Uzbekistan was embraced as a Western ally following the 9/11 attacks, a member of the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ In 2002 alone the U.S. taxpayer gave the Uzbek regime over $500 million, of which $120 million went to the armed forces, and $82 million direct to arguably the world’s most vicious security services. Also during that year, according to impeccable British government pathology evidence, at least one Uzbek dissident was boiled alive. The U.S. taxpayer paid to heat the water.


I arrived in Tashkent as British ambassador in August 2002. I was a career Diplomatic Service officer with about 20 years’ service. I was ‘Fast Stream,’ and well thought of. My four overseas postings had run: second secretary, first secretary, counselor, ambassador, which is not a bad record. I was 42 years old.

It is perhaps significant that I had been selected to be ambassador before 9/11, when priorities for Uzbekistan and the other former Soviet republics were rather different. During the late 1990s I had been deputy high commissioner (the equivalent of your deputy chief of mission position) in Accra, and was thought to have a particular expertise in democratization. In Ghana the U.K. financed and, in large part, managed free and fair elections that ended the 20-year rule of Jerry Rawlings and his party. I had led that process, incidentally with very good cooperation from our American colleagues. The Ghanaian elections followed years of work on building media and civil society, and the country remains a tremendous model for the rest of Africa.

Excellent work on this has been done by U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer, whose book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil I recommend to all serving diplomats. His position is underpinned by two basic tenets: ‘All people want freedom and can achieve it.’ And: ‘In the sea of tyranny, a democratic embassy must be an island of liberty and a steady, and not always subtle, proponent of change.’

Four False Principles

I would most heartily endorse those assertions. Lamentably, however, I do not believe many embassies, British or American, follow them in practice. I also believe the Palmer approach has been set backward by the ‘War on Terror.’ That, I would argue, is due to embassies acting on four ‘false principles,’ which that war has brought to the fore:

Putting short-term expediency ahead of long-term interest;

Pursuing specific sectoral or commercial interests as the interest of your whole nation;

Convincing yourself that your allies are good guys, because they are your allies; and

Following the ‘Precautionary Principle’: If things change, they will probably get worse.

All four of these attitudes were powerfully in play in dictating U.S. policy in Uzbekistan in the period 2002 to 2004, which I believe is a case study in how not to handle relations with a dictatorship. Before I expand on that, however, let me add a fifth one, the ‘comfort’ principle. I may well enrage many readers of this magazine by saying this, but in my experience it is sometimes the most powerful of all.

Like many of you reading this, I have paid my dues on diplomatic lifestyle questions, having served in West Africa (twice) and Central Asia. But the truth is this: While there can be serious strains and disruptions, Foreign Service officers do enjoy the compensation of a privileged lifestyle. They have very high social status, attend a lot of cocktail parties and banquets, are invited to many social events, have great housing and pools, and are automatically accepted to membership of the best golf or country clubs. The personal comfort level can be very high, and most of your socializing is done with the host country’s often oligarchical elite, and with fellow diplomats who are unlikely to lose much sleep over human rights concerns. In contrast, the Walter Carrington approach causes a degree of conflict, discomfort and social difficulty that many diplomats just do not want disturbing their sybaritic lifestyles.

There, I have said it straight out, and you know damn well it is true in very many cases. If any diplomat reading this article can swear to me that they do not know a senior colleague to whom that would apply, I will send them 10 dollars!

Clearing a Path for Extremism

On Sept. 16, 2002, I sent a cable back to London, subsequently published by the European Parliament as part of their report on extraordinary rendition, analyzing the problems with U.S. policy in Uzbekistan. That contemporary analysis dovetails neatly with some of the ‘False Principles’ outlined above. My principal criticism related to the first principle: putting short-term expediency over long-term interest. As I reported:

.’.. [President Islam] Karimov is driving this resource-rich country towards economic ruin like an Abacha. And the policy of increasing repression aimed indiscriminately at pious Muslims, combined with a deepening poverty, is the most certain way to ensure continuing support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. … I quite understand the interest of the U.S. in strategic air bases, but I believe U.S. policy is misconceived. In the short term it may help fight terrorism, but in the medium term it may promote it.’

At that time, Islamic fundamentalism was at an extremely low level in Uzbekistan. I know scores of Uzbeks, most of whom consider themselves good Muslims, and only one who doesn’t drink vodka! But Karimov was keen to portray all his opponents as linked to al-Qaida. He used his torture chambers to extract confessions to that effect, and the CIA not only funded much of the operation but was a major customer for the intelligence from the torture chambers. I knew and confirmed those facts while still ambassador.

Torture was of the most indisputable, physical kind: insertion of a limb in boiling liquid, smashing of knees and elbows, rape, sodomy, electrocution, mutilation of genitalia. It affected hundreds of people every year. One evening while I dined with an eminent dissident in Samarkand, his grandson was abducted by local militia from right outside the house and tortured to death. His body was dumped back on the doorstep in the early morning.

I also knew that the CIA was bringing in prisoners, using a front company called Premier Executive. They were being handed over to the Uzbek security services, a practice I protested as a blatant violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. I should be plain that I did not realize at the time that Uzbekistan was a destination for the wider extraordinary rendition network, as recently detailed in the Council of Europe report. But I did know that our support for an increasingly unpopular dictatorship, where there was no outlet of any kind for free expression of political views, was driving people away from the Western alternative and clearing the path for Islamic extremism.

That support was not only financial but political. In 2002 Karimov had been a guest in the White House. Throughout this period there was a veritable procession of senior U.S. civilian officials and military figures bearing similar messages, not to mention the day-to-day pronouncements of the U.S. ambassador. For instance, in February 2004, during his third visit to Tashkent, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference: ‘I brought the president the good wishes of President Bush and our appreciation for their stalwart support in the War on Terror.’ It is almost impossible to describe, if you have not witnessed it, the obsessive attention to promoting Karimov’s personality cult by the entire Uzbek media and education system.

These U.S. endorsements were continually recycled and pumped out again and again by Karimov’s vast propaganda machine. The suffering people of Uzbekistan had no doubt whose side the U.S. was on — and it wasn’t their side. That is short-termism indeed.

Conflicting Narratives

My cable of Sept. 16, 2002, also referred to the fourth of the false principles listed above ‘ self-delusion. I wrote: ‘The U.S. are trying to prop up Karimov economically, and to justify this support they need to claim that a process of economic and political reform is under way. That they do so claim is either cynicism or self-delusion.’

In the period of the U.S.-Uzbek alliance, there was an astonishing mismatch between the reality on the ground, and the official version of what was happening in the country.

In real life, repression was tightening: There were more political prisoners, an increase in torture, more NGOs banned, more Western media organizations thrown out, heavier censorship, and more elections rigged or postponed. There was more nationalizations or forced closures of enterprises, more forcible takeovers of foreign investors’ assets, more consolidation of key assets into the hands of the Karimov family, more closures of roads and dynamiting of bridges, more tariffs, more non-tariff barriers, and more physical sealing of the country’s borders.

Yet in the official narrative, censorship was ended, political prisoners released, currency made convertible, agriculture reformed. The economy and trade boomed. The problem was that the official narrative was simply the use of the ‘big lie’ technique. The Uzbek ministers, ex-Soviet officials to a man, had no concept that the official account should match the truth. The amazing thing was seeing United States officials struggling to believe them for the sake of the alliance, and struggling to persuade international organizations to accept the Uzbek narrative, as well.

It was a disheartening exercise to be party to compromises, under which international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund would publish statistics somewhere between the official statistic published by the Uzbek government and backed by Washington, and the truth — which often told the opposite story. This was most sharply expressed in economic growth statistics, which were always accepted as positive even when the economy was plainly in freefall.

At this time the U.S. was also defending Uzbekistan from well-deserved criticism at the U.N. Human Rights Council and elsewhere. Such self-delusion principle opens you up to the accompanying danger of window-dressing. This is where your host dictatorship is very happy to accept your consultants’ reports, training and courses on human rights or economic reform, without any intention at all of putting any of the teaching or advice into practice, but the existence of the training workshops or consultants’ reports becomes a useful proxy for the reform itself, and can be quoted as evidence of reform.

The U.S. paid a great deal of money for innumerable inputs on media and legal training, yet the media and the legal system in Uzbekistan remain 100 percent not free. From 2002 to 2004, Washington repeated ad nauseam the claim that the existence of such programs itself was evidence of progress, and praised the intention of the Uzbek government to reform — even as several journalists who learned to respect freedom during such courses ended up in jail if they tried to practice their new knowledge. For its part, the wily Karimov regime was very adept at playing along.

SOB Stories

The American experience in Uzbekistan illustrates the adoption of false principles over true ones. It also beautifully illustrates the entire fallacy of what I might call the ‘He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but at least he’s our son-of-a-bitch’ approach. An SOB is never ‘our’ SOB. He is always his own man; indeed, that is what defines an SOB. Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were all ‘our’ SOBs for long periods — before they bit the hand that was providing their support.

Karimov proved just as unreliable an ally. By May 2005 the argument that he was a reformer had already become untenable, when his troops massacred over 600 almost entirely unarmed demonstrators in the town of Andijan. Shortly thereafter he served the United States with notice of eviction from their large air base at Karshi Khanabad.

There has been a concerted attempt by Republican institutes to rewrite history to pretend that the U.S. quit the base in response to the Andijan massacre. That is not true — the U.S. had no intention of leaving prior to being evicted. Moreover, the entire Peace Corps operation and dozens of U.S. NGOs were also evicted. Karimov quickly moved back into the Russian orbit, following a deal struck by his daughter. In exchange for massive bribes, the country’s substantial gas reserves were handed over to the Russian energy monopoly, Gazprom.

So the U.S. lost in every respect in Uzbekistan. It forfeited its moral standing, acquiring a reputation in the Muslim world as a hypocritical and self-serving superpower, interested in democracy and human rights only when convenient. In return, the intelligence the U.S. gained from the torture chambers of the Karimov security services was self-serving propaganda that muddied the picture by providing a stream of false information exaggerating the strength of al-Qaida in Central Asia.

Elsewhere in the former communist bloc (e.g., Ukraine and Georgia), Washington backed the people against their dictatorships. That policy contributed hugely to the successful revolutions that spread so much freedom in the world. But in Uzbekistan, blinded by the short-term dictates of the ‘War on Terror,’ the U.S. backed the dictatorship against the people. That is always a very bad call.


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